Saturday, May 25, 2013

Of mockingbirds and readers

MUCH-LOVED books are many things to their readers.

Take Harper Lee’s 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

It’s been praised as a coming-of-age tale. When I first read it in 1979, the friendship that developed between childhood friends Scout, Jem and Dill and their enigmatic neighbor, Boo, made me cry—and this had nothing to do with the book review my teacher, Madam Rebecca MontaƱo, made us write after weeks of critical reading of the novel, chapter by chapter.

Prodded by our English teacher, our 13-year-old minds became aware of the fate of mockingbirds in Lee’s tale set in the American South during the Great Depression. Yet, perhaps because we were so engaged with the narrator, six-year-old Scout, my classmates and I were only vaguely aware of the trial of a Negro for the rape of a white girl.

The themes of sexual taboos, discrimination and injustice were then mere flashes of lightning briefly illuminating a darkening sky. It was only in college that I absorbed the underside of Lee’s genial, sleepy town of Maycomb.

My rereading of the novel during the late 1980s was helped a lot by that era’s salvaging, hamletting and purging. Somewhere in the coils of English contorted by martial law violence and ideologies were Lee’s mockingbirds. When their father, Atticus Finch, gives Scout and Jem their first air rifles for Christmas, he cautions them: “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The Finches’ neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, makes it less cryptic for the children: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

It’s not just generations that separate my sons from me. I realize this after I unearthed my copy of Lee’s novel for my younger son’s grade 9 Reading assignment.

This 1973 Penguin edition was reprinted by a Quezon City publisher “under the authority of Presidential Decree No. 285.” The same law prohibits exporting the book from the country. The warning is printed at the back of my copy’s flyleaf, on which my 13-year-old self has written: “Personal property… Private Property! no dog ears please!”

Then, I didn’t see the irony of juxtaposing my prickly sense of ownership rights with a regime’s curtailment of information, its rape of human rights. While turning the book’s yellowed pages, I wonder how my younger son will find Maycomb. Will he be entertained by the quirkiness of a Southern Gothic morality tale, and miss the real haunting that continues to this day?

For this reader, Lee’s tale survives the decades better in spirit than in physical form. A staple in classrooms and libraries, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has something for everyone: children, parents, teachers, lawyers, neighbors, citizens.

Rereading it on my 47th year, I belatedly realize it is also a book for readers. Love for the printed word is in nearly every critical scene. When Dill of Meridian first makes his appearance to Scout and Jem in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch, he introduces himself as, “I’m Charles Baker Harris… I can read.”

It’s a declaration that hardly impresses Jem on account of his sister’s feat: “Scout yonder’s been reading ever since she was born…”

Reading may not solve some problems, but it may prevent creating others. When Atticus keeps watch over the imprisoned Tom Robinson, the Negro accused of rape, he brings a chair, a light bulb with an extension cord, and a book. (In his youth, Atticus was nicknamed “Ol One-shot”.) So armed, the “deadest shot” in Maycomb faces the mob thirsting for a lynching.

That reading so imbues the novel without overpowering it testifies to Lee’s craft. As Scout declares after an epic struggle with a grade one teacher who demands Scout stops reading with her father so she can “properly” learn to read in class: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 26, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The empty shelf

I ALWAYS have the same rite to mark the closing of summer: I go through my boxes of books.

It starts with a pretext: my sons are required to read the classics. I have yet to meet a teenager who will spend time with Homer and Shakespeare without demanding pizza, cappuccino with extra whipped cream or some emergency measure of resuscitation. Asking teen boys to search for my 30-year-old copy of “Hamlet” is sending them on a heroic quest without any expectation of an epic end.

I undertake the mission for many selfish reasons. I know fully well my sons. I like Wiki plot summaries—for a tip on which movie to watch on the big screen. I think SparkNotes are “lifesavers” when you’re “confuzzled”: meaning, in the words of the website, “you don’t understand your teacher, your textbooks make no sense, and you have to read sixteen chapters by tomorrow.”

But nothing is cooler than the Book.

I have fewer boxes now after giving books away. I swear, though, after I open a box, there’s always a novel I have to reread. Or an enigmatic spine to be explored.

Although the high school reading list rarely goes beyond two required classics, the day is nearly done and I am still among the boxes, sweaty and dirty, turning pages, willingly detained by the clutch of a good story. Humdrum Homer and Zzzz Shakespeare have long been found, of course.

So it was an illuminating experience to spend nearly an hour in a public elementary classroom that served as a holding area for voters last May 13.

Half of the chairs needed repairs; the rest, replacements. A fellow voter ran home when the toilet turned out to have no water. The lone ceiling fan creaked and agonized like a hurting conscience that could not be silenced.

My thoughts then were not on the deliverance promised by the ballot. What pierced me was the poverty of a room where children spend at least eight hours every day for five days a week in about 10 months every year.

Limping chairs and a dry faucet did not embody the poverty as well as a single empty shelf on the wall. In handwritten block letters, the label read: “Mini-library”.

I had not been in any of the other classrooms. I had not seen the school library.

Yet the shelf, that abandoned shell, reproached me: how can learning take place when children don’t read? When they’re not lost in a book? When not even a torn cover or a dogeared page betrays some trace of life, an imaginary life, an imagined one?

On a low table were several textbooks. At least, these looked battered, as if an army had stomped over the pages, pillaged for information, and moved on to other conquests.

But as someone who devours fiction and finds required references paltry fare, the absence of story books in the classroom gave me pause: books transform a life; how does absence shape it?

Were the books taken home after the school year ended? When school opens in June, will there be new books to fill the tiny confines of this book shelf? Will lunch break and dismissal encourage a generation of browsers-turned-readers? Can there be a shortcut to learning more diverting than reading?

At St. Theresa’s College, many of my grade school homeroom teachers encouraged us to bring a book or two from home to be placed in the classroom’s designated book nook. The books were returned when school broke for summer. By sharing our favorites, we also anticipated fresh titles and new authors brought by our classmates. And there were book fairs and the mighty library card one raced to fill within the year.

It took a one-shelf library, so diminished it was empty, to remind me how this is a country where classrooms can cost more than they need to, where families that make do without basics will never part with pesos for a novel, and where children acquire an education without discovering a book.

( 09173226131)
* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 19, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Saturday, May 11, 2013


WHILE waiting for my doctor, I overheard this woman send out her companion to shop for a dentist.

This companion was a young girl, with bangs cut straight across bright, intelligent eyes. She was sharp and quick, which is why the woman must have trusted her to find someone who could fix a problematic wisdom tooth.

Look for a door that has a drawing of a tooth, the woman advised the girl on the quickest way to narrow her search in the medical complex.

Or the door might have the word “dentist” printed beneath the name, added the woman, as if she belatedly remembered that her companion could read.

This transaction filled me with wonder. I would not have selected a dentist this way, even with a very persuasive tooth killing me by degrees.

This approach may work when you send your kid to buy “suka (vinegar)”. It cannot apply when I ask my son to buy “pan de sal” because in our village, there are three bakeries. At least two of the bakeries have competitively crunchy and fragrant “pan de sal”. One bakery sells great bread but cannot follow a regular schedule for “hot bread”. Another has bakers with wanderlust, who throw off their aprons and abandon their rolling pins when the moon waxes or wanes. The other’s stale, cosmetically enhanced pastry is better than its fresh bread. And so on and so forth.

However, happening just two days before the election, that “shopping for a dentist” transaction made me realize how similar it was to my process for selecting candidates.

(A) Task: Select a candidate fit to enact laws, sit in power for at least three years, spend public funds, and generally lead the country out of the howling wilderness of corruption and oneupmanship into the “tuwid na daan” vision of nationalism, social justice and progress.

(B) Clues: Whose political ads were the most entertaining? Whose names consistently topped the surveys? What family names can be likened to a “brand” (not just meaning a “key selling point” in marketing terms, but a “distinctive symbol burned into (an) animal’s skin with a hot iron stamp, and… subsequently used in business, marketing and advertising” to guarantee recall, popularity and winnability, according to Wikipedia)?

It took the woman sending the child on a dentist-shopping expedition to strike me with the incongruity of answering (A) with (B).

Taking my cue from my teenagers, who track online reviews and forums to search for everything, from a dermatologist to a driving instructor, I went to the Internet for a better fix of my “shopping” dilemma for May 13.

While the Internet can be full of heated intellectualization over issues, such as what can be read into Risa Hontiveros’s never publicly seen separation from her trademark scarf, there are news websites and social media that more substantially delineate the profile of a public servant.

For instance, in the Rappler website, each of the senatorial candidates has a detailed profile, timeline, and fast facts, which include political affiliations, advocacies, and laws authored.

Those scrutinizing candidates seeking reelection can check the Rappler’s record of whether a contender was for or against key issues: divorce, Freedom of Information bill, Reproductive Health Law, Sin Tax Law, Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro, pork barrel system, Visiting Forces Agreement, and partylist system reform, among others.

For checking the track record of candidates seeking local offices and political parties, the news media’s coverage of politicians, even long before the elections, is a better gauge of sincerity and consistency in public service than an impressively edited political ad.

Tomorrow, I will bring at least one valid I.D., my reading glasses, a bottle of water, a native fan, and my “kodigo”. By personally preparing a list of candidates before going to the voting precinct, I avoid unnecessary stress for me, fellow voters, and the rest of the country.

More dangerous than electing the wrong names is having a short memory.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 12, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Twin Peaks meets Iron Man

FROM tit to teat.

That about summarizes my cycle, from the adolescent wonder of discovering that a once-flat-as-a-board chest has become not just a fount but a volcano of sensations, to motherhood’s gushes of sustenance, connectedness and power, to this premenopausal reminder that this organ once known only by monosyllabic nicknames (“tits,” “boobs,” “front”) does have a polysyllabic moniker (“mammary glands”) that captures better these twin peaks of unforeseeable moods.

Like the bullets of an imaginary Powerpoint presentation, my 47 years flashed as I stared at the ceiling of a room where I waited for the team to conduct an ultrasound-guided FNAB.

At a particular age, one acquires new words from just five minutes on a consultation couch. I learned “mammogram” and “sonomammogram” after a January 1 discovery of a lump on my left breast. “FNAB” became an addition after May 1, when I touched a painful mass in the right breast. (That these breasts seem to time their surprises on public holidays is a huge help for recalling bio history, the most popular request in hospitals.)

Since a mammo entailed only partial nudity and seconds of mechanical squeezing and a sonomammo was merely gooey and messy, I thought the FNAB was just another jargon that’s hard to spell out until I overheard the coordinator of the health maintenance organization say aloud, “fine needle”.

Instantly, I remembered my Practical Arts teacher, Ms. Tan, who praised the peanuts I planted but made me perpetually rip my untidy stitches. Whether because of past sewing mishaps or present paranoia with medical jargon, I felt only extreme prejudice against a procedure that may end up deflating Poor Peaks.

Fortunately, the hospital policy was to schedule procedures a day after, giving me time to Google. Fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB), or fine needle aspiration (FNA), means a specialist, guided by ultrasound imaging, inserts a very small needle to suck out (“aspirate”) from an abnormal growth sample cells to determine if the growth is benign or cancerous.

In scheduling the FNAB, I met a member of the medical team. A former student, Dr. Evadyne Bontilao studied Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines Cebu before proceeding to medicine. After specializing in radiology, she plans to serve her hometown in Maranding, Lanao del Norte.

In explaining the procedure to me, Evadyne filled a gap that doctors seldom grasp: a patient’s need for information to come to grips with the unknown.

That is why, on the day of the FNAB, I projected on the ceiling as much information as I could to soothe my anxiety: takes only an hour or less, with local anaesthesia, less invasive, more accurate, no scarring.

Unfortunately, the ceiling was mango-yellow, reminding me of the ice cream flavor I favored as a child, in the good old days when I was still as flat as a board and did not have to deal with Temperamental Peaks.

A junior member of the team did not fare as well, too. When he mentioned for the video recording his “preparation of the equipments,” the senior specialist harrumphed and querulously asked him, “Equipments ‘gyud’? Why not ‘equipment’?” And when the young man declared I had “no allergies,” his senior was aggrieved by the use of the plural form to signify non-existence.

The grammar tutorial was strangely bolstering. A fellow picky about language could be skillful in needlecraft, too.

However, true to his generation, the specialist had other proclivities not in the realm of homemaking. While we watched on the monitor the image of the needle seeking out the cysts, a virtual hole in the sea of echo waves of breast tissue, the specialist answered my questions while making comic book sounds like POP! KA-BLAM! POUFF! as fluid was withdrawn and each mini mean circle collapsed from being to nothingness on the ultrasound monitor.

A friend once said that the worst part of a biopsy is waiting for the results, even if the result later turns out to be good. After introducing Twin Peaks to Iron Man, I cannot wait to find out where the action takes me.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 5, 2013 issue of the main op-ed column, “Matamata”